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Another Nuremberg trial

Rob Knight sees another chapter of history rewritten, as ex-East German leader Erich Honecker is given the same treatment as the Nazis

German conservatives have been clamouring since reunification for Erich Honecker and other leaders of the old East German state (GDR) to be given a collective trial, as the Nazi leaders were at Nuremberg after the Second World War. Now, with Honecker's enforced return from Russia, it looks as if they are going to get their way. Honecker and other top leaders of the GDR are to be tried for the killing of those shot while trying to cross the Berlin Wall from East to West Germany.

Everything's relative

The comparison with the Nuremberg trials is an important one for the German right. It has long maintained that Germany should not be ashamed about its Nazi past. Its equation of Honecker and the other old Stalinists with the Nazi leaders sends a clear message to the world. The German right is saying that there was nothing unique about the Nazis, and that others - especially communists - are capable of equal, if not greater, barbarities. The conclusion of the right is that Germany should no longer be singled out as a nation with a uniquely barbarous past.

This is a notion which the German right has been peddling for years. Until recently it was a point of view that did not fit in with official acceptance of national guilt by the West German state. The evocation of the Nuremberg trials is particularly telling here, as it was at Nuremberg that the Nazi leaders were put on trial in front of the whole world, and where the Nazis' war guilt was settled.

Not Nuremberg

Since the reunification of Germany, however, the attitude of the establishment to the past has been changing rapidly. Chancellor Helmut Kohl and others have been making it clear that they are no longer prepared to allow the past to weigh down so heavily on what they can do in the present.

Kohl's former foreign minister, Rupert Scholz, has gone so far as to claim that the Honecker trial would be more legitimate than Nuremberg.

'For the second time in German history we face the judgment and punishment of a totalitarian regime. But between the Nazi trials and today's there is a decisive difference. The Nuremberg trial was the exercise of their rights by the victors in the war. What we have today is not comparable, it is not a form of 'justice for the winners' even if some incorrigibles claim that it is.' (Welt am Sonntag, 3 August 1992)

Scholz went on to point out that the German courts must take the place of an international court of justice, which does not exist. So the message is not only that Nuremberg was not real justice, but also that Germany must take on the role of international arbiter in these matters.

Scholz and others like him are no longer isolated voices on the right. The rewriting of Nazi history has proceeded from the arcane journals of the far right into the fabric of German politics.

The conservatives have long argued that the war, and by implication Nazism, was a justified (or at worst, an understandable) struggle against the evils of eastern communism. This viewpoint has been strengthened by the bankruptcy and final collapse of the Soviet bloc. Today the right feels able to argue that Nazism was in fact better than Stalinism, because under Nazism the capitalist economy was not destroyed. The assumptions behind this argument are now so widely accepted that they have begun to be incorporated in the legal system - for example, in the new rules relating to ethnic Germans.

Who's German?

In an attempt to cut off the mass immigration of ethnic Germans from eastern Europe, the government has instituted strict rules to determine who is and who is not really German. One of these rules states that nobody can claim German citizenship if they or their ancestors fought against Germany during the Second World War. This means that those who fought in the anti-Nazi resistance, for example the free Polish Army, are automatically excluded from citizenship.

The redefinition of German citizenship effectively links the idea of being German to the Nazi regime, and turns the dominant assumptions of the postwar period on their head. Now it is not the Nazis, but those who opposed them, who are considered guilty of an offence against Germany. This is just one of many ways in which the Nazi period is being normalised.

Why is it so important that Germany should be able to come to terms with the past? The negative images which are associated with the Nazis are a continuous burden for the modern German authorities. The need to cleanse the past is particularly important now that Germany is beginning to take its place as a great power in the world once more.

Tinpot dictators

At a time when the German authorities are trying to establish themselves as a major player on the world stage, it is galling for them continually to hear other Western powers compare tinpot dictators like Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic to Hitler, or warn of the imminent return of Nazism every time Germany does something they do not like (like putting up interest rates).

But the real problems lie in the sphere of domestic politics. The end of the Cold War and reunification means that the anti-communist politics which gave the German establishment its authority in the postwar years have come to the end of the road. Yet Kohl has no new programme with which to replace old-fashioned anti-communism. As a result, the state is suffering from a condition of political exhaustion, which means that it has no political vision to inspire and unify the German people. Despite Germany's emergence as a world power, the political elite has been losing its grip on society at home. The German authorities urgently need something with which to cohere a new base of support for themselves.

Two equals

The government's response has been to try to develop a new progressive nationalist image, in which the intervention in Yugoslavia, the rewriting of the past and vestigial anti-communism all play a role. The prospect of a Honecker trial is particularly suited to this project. By linking Stalinism and Nazism together in a new Nuremberg, it could enable the German authorities to kill two birds with one stone. They can attempt to milk remaining anti-communist sentiments, and at the same time play down the Nazi past by relativising it as a response to communism.

Despite these potential advantages, the German government seems uncertain about whether it has done the right thing in bringing Erich Honecker back to Germany to face trial. Chancellor Kohl expressed himself quietly satisfied with Honecker's arrival, but other leading government members have expressed worries about the impact a trial could have. Why?

First, the government has good reason to fear that the revelations at the trial could embarrass it. It is only five years since Honecker, as head of the GDR, was welcomed with full state honours to West Germany by Kohl himself. It is an open secret that Kohl's government provided Honecker not only with diplomatic recognition, but with a complex web of financial arrangements. This was despite the fact that the Kohl government was supposedly committed to the destruction of the East German state.

High-risk trial

Second, there is a danger that the trial will backfire. In a situation in which the German government lacks public authority, there could be serious questioning of the legitimacy of its actions. One influential commentator, Rudolf Augstein in Der Spiegel, has already pointed out that legally the government is on shaky ground in putting the head of state of another country on trial. He argues that if Germany has the right to put Honecker on trial, it should also put the British government on trial for its shoot-to-kill policy in Northern Ireland.

Many Germans both east and west are thoroughly disillusioned with the political elite. A recent poll showed that 65 per cent thought that all existing politicians were in the wrong job. In eastern Germany, where the economy has not recovered after the mass privatisation process, polls show that 30 per cent of people are willing to support a party which represents the interests of easterners alone, even if it is led by the old Stalinists from the GDR. This bore out the result of the May local elections in east Berlin, where the former Stalinists got over 30 per cent of the vote.

Improbable comeback?

In these circumstances, unlikely as it may seem, there is even a possibility that sections of German society may openly resent the circus of the Honecker trial. This would mark one of the most improbable 'comebacks' in modern political history. All of which goes to show that rewriting history cannot on its own solve the problems of the present.

The fact that the German authorities are so obsessed with the past is a clear indication that even the most prosperous capitalist elite in Europe has no faith in the future, and lacks anything with which to inspire or unite its people. It is a sign of the times that the German government which wants to promote itself as the new European superpower has to stage a show-trial for a doddering old Stalinist in order to bolster its authority at home.

Honecker is brought home for trial, but it's history that's in the dock

Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 47, September 1992

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